Eight Online Environmental Archives to Bookmark

An illustration of an octopus

Archives shape how history is written and remembered. Environmental archives help account for changing ideas of nature and changes over time in species and habitats, a project made all the more urgent by disappearing species and landscapes. Preserving data can also be an act of resistance in the face of changing governmental policies, like the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative which began in November 2016 and archives vulnerable environmental data produced by U.S. government agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Yet archives themselves have historically been closely aligned with colonial projects and cultural exploitation. Some approaches intentionally resist the archive as a white and colonial institution, working to decolonize the archive and acknowledge how many archives are made possible by violent acts of dispossession. The First Archivist Circle, for instance, drafted the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials in 2006, which include guidelines for archival best practices like revising indexes and other classifications.

Moreover, even digital archives have a lasting environmental footprint, requiring energy, infrastructure, and labor to maintain their collections. These eight thought-provoking environmental archives continue to raise questions about the processes of collection, preservation, curation, and citation even as they seek to answer historical inquires.

Biodiversity Heritage Library

An illustration of the Thylacine, an extinct marsupial

The Biodiversity Heritage Library partners with libraries, museums, and other institutions to digitize the natural history materials in their collections, as part of the archive’s efforts to serve the world of biodiversity researchers. The materials date from the 15th to the 21st century and record the entangled nexus of colonialism, exploration, and scientific inquiry as well as the accelerating phenomenon of species extinction from the Thylacine to the Dodo. Her Natural History, a recent project for International Women’s Day, spotlights the contributions of women illustrators to natural history and makes use of the archive’s captivating Flickr account of over 134,000 illustrations. The illustrations are often otherworldly, like these free-living unarmored dinoflagellata, with elaborate details that are at once beautiful and informative.

Queer Zine Archive Project

The cover of the zine Queer City showing the title and a black and white photograph of rows of houses

First launched in 2003, the Queer Zine Archive Project is a testament to the intertwined commitments of many queer writers and artists to queer liberation and environmental activism. Rachel Pepper and Alexander Chee’s “Queer City #1” describes San Francisco’s water conservation policies of the 1990s alongside reviews of local gay and lesbian bookstores and The Pillsbury Posse’s “A Figment of an Imagined Nation #2” covers food ethics as well as reproductive justice and police harassment. Many zines also document how ideas of nature and the natural are mobilized against queer and trans people, particularly people of color. Nia King‘s “Borderlands: Tales from Disputed Territories between Races and Cultures” challenges cultural assumptions about race, gender, and geography through narratives of hitchhiking, racism, and border crossings.

Discard Studies Compendium

A garbage bin overflowing with bags of trash An indispensable list for anyone interested in studying waste, toxicity, and disposability, the Discard Studies Compendium provides an introduction to the core concepts, methodologies, and critical histories in the field of discard studies. Each entry links to a brief summary about the concept, methodology, or history as well as a list of references for further reading. The compendium is part of the larger Discard Studies website—edited by the feminist environmental scientist, science and technology studies scholar, and activist Max Liboiron—which also includes a frequently updated resources page filled with recommendations of books, journal articles, films, and syllabi.

Dawnland Voices

A green pamphlet titled The Narragansett Dawn

Affiliated with a magazine and an anthology of the same name, the Dawnland Voices digital archive preserves materials produced by Indigenous communities in New England. The growing archive includes letters, newspapers, petitions, stories, and photographs. Siobhan Senier, one of the creators, notes that one feature distinguishing Dawnland Voices from similar projects like the Yale Indian Papers Project or the Plateau Peoples Portal is that the archive does not intend to “digitally repatriate” materials that remain held in non-Native collections but “instead, to support and supplement tribal people’s own archiving efforts.” The magazine offers a chance to connect environmental questions raised by archival materials with contemporary Indigenous writing, especially since the new co-editors Carol Bachofner (Abenaki) and Mihku Paul (Maliseet) hope to focus an upcoming issue on water.

Digital Schomburg

The logo for the Digital Schomburg and a series of blue and black numbers

A deeply-researched archive of documents, images, oral histories, and more about the global Black experience, Digital Schomburg is the online companion to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The virtual Schomburg Center allows visitors to access many of the materials available in the Harlem, New York, archive including interpretive materials produced by curators and scholars like exhibitions, articles, and videos. The Schomburg’s community oral history project, “A People’s History of Harlem,” preserves firsthand accounts of gentrification and environmental activism, like a 2014 interview with Louis D. Bailey about his decades of experience fighting environmental racism.

Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Modern Environmental Movement

A pamphlet from Gaylord Nelson's campaign for governor picturing Nelson wearing a suit and walking with a briefcaseThis online exhibit and digital environmental archive, a partnership between the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, explores mid-20th-century U.S. environmental politics through one of its most important elected officials. As governor of Wisconsin and U.S. senator, Gaylord Nelson sometimes exemplified the limited horizons of mainstream environmentalism. But he was also committed to fighting poverty and pollution at the same time in ways that harkened back to the New Deal and prefigure the proposed Green New Deal. The site’s documents, images, and videos are also evidence of what project consultant Adam Rome calls “the genius of Earth Day”: Nelson’s decision, after proposing a national environmental teach-in, to let local organizers define environmental problems for themselves.

Early Caribbean Digital Archive

The front page of Benjamin Moseley's A Treatise on Sugar

Co-founded by Nicole Aljoe and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon of Northeastern University in 2011, the Early Caribbean Digital Archive focuses on pre-20th-century Caribbean archival materials with a goal of making Caribbean histories written by Black, enslaved, Creole, Indigenous, and colonized people accessible online. The archive’s staff provides explanations of how and why materials are shared, in an effort to decolonize their archival practices and foreground the colonial nature of archives. Benjamin Moseley’s “A Treatise on Sugar,” for instance, is accompanied by a scholarly introduction that emphasizes how the text provides “Eurocentric geographical histories of plant cultivation” and helps put these plantation legacies in context. Another practice the staff uses is to “remix and reassemble” archival materials to highlight previously unacknowledged contributions, like the digital anthology of “embedded slave narratives” in texts by European colonial authors.


A map of the United States and territories showing SuperFund sites as colorful dotsDeveloped by media artist Brooke Singer, ToxicSites compiles data on SuperFund sites from the Environmental Protection Agency into interactive maps and graphs. Visitors can explore more than 13,000 SuperFund sites located in the U.S. and its five major territories. Clicking on a SuperFund site from the interactive map leads to a page that includes information about the site’s Hazardous Ranking Score; a timeline of events pertaining to the site’s discovery, assessment, and removal efforts; a list of contaminants and health effects related to the site; census data of nearby communities; and a list of potentially responsible parties. The website also includes news reports and personal testimonies as well as photo essays and videos related to specific SuperFund sites.

Thank you to Edge Effects editors Nicole Bennett for contributing recommendations of the environmental archives Discard Studies Compendium and ToxicSites and Brian Hamilton for providing information about the Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day site of which he was lead author.

Featured image: Plate LXXIX from Carl Chun’s The Cephalopoda, an account of the 1898 Valdivia expedition available online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Laura Perry is the Managing Editor of Edge Effects and a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research interests include animal studies and the public humanities and she is also an organizer of the interdisciplinary research group Environmental Justice in Multispecies Worlds. Twitter. Contact.